Polling results have tracked so closely with the politicization of the Afghan war that it’s difficult to discern the public’s actual views in such a polarized environment. The polls tell us less about what the public is really feeling than about how well the two parties – in concert with the military – are spinning their positions.
We see this, unfortunately, in the erratic poll results that seem to bend and weave with the 24-hour news cycle and coordinated PR blitzes, sometime producing curious contradictions even within the same survey.
Take the swinging opinion on Afghanistan throughout the last year. When President Barack Obama came into office on a promise to win the "good war," 64 percent of voters, including a strong showing of Democrats swelling with a newfound faith in the presidency, supported the 17,000 additional "boots on the ground" advocated by the president in February, while only 33 percent did not. According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, 63 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans favored the increase.
Which is funny, because only 50 percent of the respondents in that same poll believed the war was worth fighting.
Then, as Obama pressed on with a fresh military offensive in southern Afghanistan in June, cracks began showing in the bold edifice constructed to herald the advent of Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. People were talking and writing about their fears publicly. Not surprisingly, Democrats became less enamored of "surging," even under a Democratic president, and their support for the war began to subtly drop.
Meanwhile, the gloves came off in the Republican camp. Suddenly, the war party’s base began having second thoughts, too. At home, the tea parties and town hall protests were in full swing, with talk about fiscal restraint and the national debt dominating the rhetoric. To the right-wingers, who had already tarred Obama as a radical, a Communist, and a nanny state overlord, having to call the man "commander in chief" was pure anathema.
Thus, in the August Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 51 percent of voters now said the war wasn’t worth fighting, while only 26 percent backed Gen. Stan McChrystal’s call to boost U.S. troop levels again. More importantly, only 39 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats supported a new surge into Afghanistan. Only 45 percent said winning the war was even critical to "the broader war on terrorism."
This, apparently, called for quick reaction. Suddenly, the Republican establishment – which the Bush-era neoconservative leadership still holds considerable influence over in foreign policy matters – started rallying around McChrystal and rolled out the oldies but not yet moldies – Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham – for the full court press, in the press, about why McChrystal needed to be heeded.
On Sept. 23, McCain officially launched the new partisan meme: Obama was not listening to "his commanders on the ground." Speaking at arguably the most partisan venue in town that week, the new Project for a New American Century, a.k.a. the Foreign Policy Initiative, McCain took Obama to task for his apparent lack of proper respect for his generals. In fact, he said he had never seen "such a disconnect" between the White House and the military before.
"Apparently the administration does not want Gen. McChrystal’s recommendations on troop strengths," McCain all but whined.
Then, so as not to make it too political, he made it a congressional issue in an Oct. 1 floor speech, calling for McChrystal to testify before the body:
"We need to hear from the architects and the commanders. Now, if the president doesn’t want to talk to the commander in the field, General McChrystal, very often … I respect the president of the United States making a decision. But I also cherish the role of the United States Senate and House of Representatives in being informed as to the views of our military commanders in whom we place the responsibilities and the lives of our young men and women who are in harm’s way."
Suddenly, old Bush-era tropes were recalled and gladly recycled: Obama isn’t deferring to his generals the way Bush did before the Surge in Iraq; he isn’t brave enough to shrug off his defeatist left flank and support the war the way he ought to. In television appearances and his syndicated commentaries, Charles Krauthammer, ever the light touch, spent nearly a week simultaneously conflating Gen. McChrystal with Gen. Sherman and reducing Obama to a pathetic anti-hero:
"The White House began leaking an alternate strategy, apparently proposed (invented?) by Vice President Joe Biden, for achieving immaculate victory with arm’s-length use of cruise missiles, predator drones and special ops.
"The irony is that no one knows more about this kind of warfare than McChrystal. He was in charge of exactly this kind of ‘counterterrorism’ in Iraq for nearly five years, killing thousands of bad guys in hugely successful under-the-radar operations.
"When the world’s expert on this type of counterterrorism warfare recommends the opposite strategy – ‘counterinsurgency,’ meaning a heavy-footprint, population-protecting troop surge – you have the most convincing of cases against counterterrorism by the man who most knows its potential and its limits. And McChrystal was emphatic in his recommendation: To go any other way than counterinsurgency would lose the war.
"Yet his commander in chief, young Hamlet, frets, demurs, agonizes."
This was a message the restive base could appreciate: Obama isn’t fit to lick McChrystal’s boots. Mash this up with the general partisan rage against Obama, which peaked a month before with Rep. Joe Wilson’s "you lie!" bravado during a presidential address to Congress, and you had a whole new setting for the next Washington Post-ABC Poll on Afghanistan.
Republicans had again found their taste for blood.
In a poll released two weeks ago, 47 percent – compared to 26 percent in August – favored a buildup of 40,000 troops, while 49 percent opposed it. In a more recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released Oct. 28, 47 percent approved some increase in troop levels, while 43 percent opposed it.
On the other hand, 45 percent thought it would be quite "acceptable" to pull out nearly all of the troops in favor of a narrow campaign against al-Qaeda, according to the same NBC/WSJ poll. Meanwhile, confidence in Obama’s ability to fight the war has plummeted in both surveys; implicit is the notion that the generals know better than their commander in chief.
Of course, the responses fell along strict partisan lines. Everyone back into their neat little corners.
"It’s too polarized to have a rational discussion," said Aubrey Immelman, a professor of political psychology at the College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. He studies the personalities of candidates as well as media agenda-setting and groupthink.
Politicization of war is certainly not new; one can make the case that it began in Vietnam, with cultural and political divisions over the war hardening the identities of Republicans and Democrats as warhawks and peaceniks, respectively, for decades to come. What’s new is the military openly pushing – through activist generals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and their active-duty and civilian surrogates in Washington – a war for its own self-sustaining ends, pressuring a president whose inclinations may not jibe with the generals’.
In his recent "Stan McChrystal’s Flying Circus," Jeff Huber detailed the general’s "open information warfare" and called out the media’s complicity.
"Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander in Afghanistan and Monty Python fan, has put on quite a show of insubordination in the past month or so in an attempt to cram his escalation plan down the world’s throat. He has waged open information warfare in the media, right-wing and otherwise, against President Barack Obama. I wonder how much longer Obama will put up with it.
"More to the point, I wonder if he can stand up to it."
Huber has charged the elite media with openly sycophantic behavior. Marc Weisbrot, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, agrees, and in an Oct. 23 commentary said establishment organs such as NBC’s Meet the Press play right into the military’s hands by setting up "roundtables" subtly skewed in favor of escalation. In most of these so-called corporate media conversations, troop withdrawal is never given equal consideration.
"What kind of a public debate can we have on the most vital issues of the day in the United States? A lot depends on the media, which determines how these issues are framed for most people," Weisbrot wrote, arguing, perhaps effectively, that Obama is not driven by public opinion polls but by "media strategy, and on not taking any risk that the major media would turn against him. That is how he got where he is today, and how he hopes to be reelected."
With the "major media" in suck-up mode toward the military, public opinion on Afghanistan has just become another expression of the American political divide, and we should not count on it to reflect anything but ephemeral gut reactions to the inane 24-hour news cycle, unhelpful media filters, and the military’s own "informational warfare." Nor should we expect that our leaders even care.
Remember, public opinion ahead of the Iraq "Surge" in early 2007 was even less supportive than for an Afghanistan escalation today: 61 percent opposed Bush’s plan for 20,000 additional troops, and 53 percent of all respondents said they wanted congressional Democrats to shut down funding for it.
While "the poll found sharp partisan divisions on nearly every question relating to Iraq, which grows out of the political polarization that has occurred during Bush’s presidency," 58 percent said the war in Iraq wasn’t worth fighting in the first place, down only three percentage points from a poll a month before.
For all the ambiguity in these polls, the public’s negativity regarding the question of whether these wars are "worth it" remains consistently high throughout all the surveys. This should be instructive – if not alarming – considering the commitment of billions of dollars and thousands of lost lives, not to mention the aforementioned efforts at manipulation from the top.
Alas, that’s the shard of truth amid the broken looking glass of public opinion.
Now what is that worth?